Biology Seminars for First-Year Students

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BIOG 1250: Biology Seminar

Small groups explore a topic in biology while learning to think like a scientist

Are you interested in catching the excitement of biology by talking with a faculty member and other inquisitive students? If you answered yes, then consider enrolling in a BIOG 1250 Seminar that is facilitated by enthusiastic faculty members who love teaching. Topic based seminars target first-year students with AP credit or a strong interest in research. Seminar enrollment is limited to 20 students, is usually held for two hours over seven weeks, and is awarded 1 credit with an S/U grade only. The seminar goals are outlined below:

  • Increase the opportunity for students to have a meaningful interaction with a biologist
  • Perpetuate excitement in studying biology
  • Develop critical thinking skills by exploring topics in the biological sciences (review at least one scientific paper)
  • Increase sense of community by expanding social and academic networks
  • Learn the value of collaborative learning
  • Discuss ethical issues in science

Student evaluations have been very positive: 92% responded that the seminar helped develop critical thinking skills and 99% reported being able to interact comfortably with the professor. Many faculty seminar leaders enjoyed the freedom to use a more inquiry based learning model while giving students the opportunity to choose papers to review and take leadership for helping facilitate discussions.

Student Feedback

Random responses from students who were asked if they would recommend the seminar to other students:

  • "I definitely would. It piqued my interest in marine life. The lecturer was instrumental in doing that."
  • "Yes, it’s a great foundation-builder in biological research skills!"
  • "Yes. This course helped me feel less intimidated by scientific papers, introduced me to a variety of topics, and helped me understand the general format of scientific papers required by different journals."
  • "Yes I would recommend the course, it was very informative and would especially benefit anyone with an interest in botany or pharmaceuticals."
  • "I would definitely recommend this course to others. Not only did it help me understand some medical issues seniors have to face, it also helped me understand the economics of the US healthcare system. This class also exposed me to concepts I have never touched upon and it was interesting."
  • "It was good to study a variety of topics chosen by students who had an interest in them. An awesome idea for a course – combining both discussion of papers and practical laboratory skills."
  • "Yes, but only to those people who are serious about majoring in science and who want to improve their communication skills (i.e., as they present)."
  • "Yes. It’s a great experience in a wide range of areas/skills. I definitely would, it is a great way to learn a bit about microbiology. I really was not thinking about taking microbio but I think I will now."


Spring 2018 Seminar Descriptions:


BIOG 1250: Mendelian Outlaws: The Biology of Selfish Genetic Elements 

1 cr., S/U, Tuesday, January 24- March 16;  10:10 AM-11:25 AM

Faculty: Arvid Ă…gren 

The rules of inheritance are usually quite straightforward. Gregor Mendel showed that genes are inherited as discrete units and that the mother and the father each contribute one copy each to their offspring. A given gene copy therefore has a 50% chance of being passed on to an offspring. In general, genes follow these rules pretty well, which means that the only way for a gene to improve its chances of being passed on the next generation is by helping the individual organism that carries it survive and reproduce. However, not all genes obey these rules. Some genes, called selfish genetic elements, have evolved various ways of improving the chances of their own transmission, even if it comes at a cost to the individual organism.

In this reading course, students will be introduced to the weird and wonderful world of selfish genetic elements. We will read historical and recent papers to explore a wide variety of selfish genetic elements, and how biologists have determined the causes and consequences of their spread. We will also discuss their implications for evolutionary theory more broadly, especially the relationship with the so-called gene’s-eye view evolution. 

BIOG 1250: Art and the Neurobiology of Vision

1 cr., S/U, Tuesday, January 24- March 16;  2:30-4:25 PM

Faculty: Cole Gilbert

This seminar will focus on how 2D pictorial art from Paleolithic cave paintings in southern Europe through mid-20th century abstract expressionism is interpreted by our visual system. We will track the development of form, color, perspective, facial representation, etc., and examine how our eyes and visual cortex process the two-dimensional pattern of light projected on to our retina into a unified  percept of the artwork. This is not a course in art appreciation, although we will look at some cool paintings. It is about how clever and skillful artists have arranged (mostly natural) pigments on their 2D canvas, or board, or rock face, to be deciphered by the neural mechanisms of the retina and brain as some sort of representation of the real world. The course is 1 credit and will meet once per week for two hours for the first 7 weeks of the semester. Readings will be assigned each week, and the course grade (Letter or S/U) will be based on participation in weekly discussion and a short paper.

BIOG 1250: Nature vs. Nurture and the Science of Epigenetics

1 cr., S/U, Wednesday, March 19- May 9;  7:30-8:45 PM

Faculty: Paul Soloway

The nature vs. nurture debate has been raging for centuries.  What is most relevant to our traits, genomic sequences we've inherited, or environmental variables we've experienced?  Like most 'either-or' arguments, both are relevant.  Though we have a strong understanding of the genetic basis of some traits, and there is broad appreciation that environmental variables like nutrition, toxins, and stress also affect our traits, we have little understanding of the mechanisms by which those environment variables exert their effects. 

Advances in the field of epigenetics have provided some insight.  The term epigenetics was coined in the 1950s to describe non-genetic modes of inheritance.  More recent discoveries have identified persistent chemical modifications to the DNA, and histone proteins intimately associated with DNA, as critical regulators of epigenetic inheritance that are distinct from the underlying DNA sequences. 

The goals of this seminar are to (1) provide a brief history of genetics and epigenetics; (2) describe notable examples of environmentally-imparted traits, and their inheritance; (3) discuss molecular mechanisms that have emerged as mediators of this mode of inheritance, their role in development, and therapeutic interventions to modify them; (4) identify unanswered questions in the epigenetics field, and approaches necessary to address them.  Though much discussion will involve human and mammalian biology, key examples from diverse organisms that provide critical insights will be discussed as well.